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Journal Article

Australian message sticks: old questions, new directions


Kelly,  Piers
The Mint, Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, Max Planck Society;

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Kelly, P. (2020). Australian message sticks: old questions, new directions. Journal of Material Culture, 25(2), 133-152. doi:10.1177/1359183519858375.

Cite as: http://hdl.handle.net/21.11116/0000-0003-FDF8-9
Message sticks are tools of graphic communication, once used across the Australian continent. While their styles vary, a typical message stick is a flattened or cylindrical length of wood with motifs engraved on all sides. Carried by special messengers over long distances, their motifs were intended to complement a verbally produced communication such as an invitation, a declaration of war, or news of a death. It was only in the late 1880s that message sticks first became a subject of formal anthropological enquiry at a time when the practice was already in steep transition; very little original research has been published in the 20th century and beyond. In this article, the author reviews colonial efforts to understand these objects, as recorded in documentary and museum archives, and describes transformations of message stick communication in contemporary settings. He summarizes the state-of-the-art in message stick research and identifies the still unanswered questions concerning their origins, adaptations and significance.